MODI: THE TASKMASTER AT WORK

A commentator’s recent observation that there is a touch of the stern headmaster in Narendra Modi may have induced the prime minister to say that he is a taskmaster, not a headmaster, during his speech on Teacher’s Day.

That he has that trait can be seen from his insistence that ministers and officials must be punctual in attending office, keep it clean, be careful about who they talk to and also about their attire.  One of the ministers was reportedly ticked off for travelling abroad in jeans. All of these point to the mindset of a martinet.

It was not surprising, therefore, that Modi chose the Teacher’s Day to address school students directly. His homilies were unexceptionable, but what was noteworthy was his objective of specifying, as in the case of ministers and M.P.s earlier, the behaviour pattern of students – switch off lights to save electricity – and also of successful professionals – can you not spend a day in a week to instruct students in local schools?  There is an element of nation building in all these instructions.

It is evident that Modi is taking his task as PM far more seriously than most of his predecessors by imposing his writ not only on administration and politics, but in other sectors as well. From toilets to e-governance, he wants to lay down the rules by which the country will be run.

It is now clear that no important file will move without his clearance. Normally, one would have expected that such excessive control will slow down the process of governance. But, given the long hours that he is said to put in and his ability to take quick decisions, there may not be much undue delay.

What is noteworthy about this style of functioning is that if all goes well, India will be a different place in the next few years. Arguably, it will be cleaner, less class conscious (“in Japan students and teachers clean the toilets together”), more efficient and, consequently, more prosperous. The political fallout of this energetic method of running the country cannot but be of considerable benefit to the BJP.

But, the point is to what extent will the BJP and the Sangh parivar be transformed from its traditional orthodox selves, which place greater emphasis on religious than on temporal matters. For instance, there have been recurring reports in recent days of Muslims belonging to the Dalit communities being reconverted back into the Hindu fold by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal activists.

In Ajmer, an entire mosque was similarly “reclaimed”. There has also been a furore about the so-called “love jehad”, which is about Muslim young men marrying and converting Hindu girls.

These incidents, which recall the parivar’s anti-Muslim campaigns of the 1990s, are clearly out of sync with Modi’s modernistic approach, which is also reflected in his stylish dresses. It is a matter of interest to see how, and whether, he reconciles these provocative trends, which carry the danger of fomenting communal tension, with his vision of a clean, industrialized, progressive India.

There are a few signs that he is trying to control the hotheads. For instance, the decision of the RSS and the VHP to freeze the temple issue for a year  could not have been due to an outbreak of good sense in these outfits. Either Modi has told these Hindu supremacist organizations to pipe down, or they themselves have realized that they must not queer Modi’s pitch by raising the communal temperature.

Considering that Modi called for a 10-year moratorium on sectarian violence, the move on the temple is understandable. So, is the decision of the BJP’s U.P. unit not to mention the words, love jehad, in a recent resolution. As a party member confirmed, the directive to keep the words out had come from Delhi. It also has to be noted that neither the RSS chief nor anyone else in the saffron brotherhood has been referring to India as a Hindu nation in recent days.

Is it too early to hope that Modi is signalling an about-turn from the BJP’s and the parivar’s pro-Hindu agenda? Also, is this a short-term tactic or a long-term strategy? Is it possible that once the economy picks up and investments start pouring in, Modi will use his popularity to revive the agenda?

The reason for this suspicion is that a prosperous nation need not always be apologetic about sectarian prejudices, vide the US which was known as the country of the WASPs – white Anglo-Saxon Protestants – where blacks were second-class citizens for long periods of its history.

India is different, of course. Its multicultural, multi-religious, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic policy makes it too diverse for any one religious group to establish its hegemony over the others.

At the same time, it is known that large sections of Hindus belonging to the upper and middle classes have become more assertive of their religious identity than before while benefitting from the opening up of the economy. It is this section which vociferously backs Modi.

As they become wealthier, will their assertiveness grow? On the other hand, since every community will benefit from an economic boom, such boldness may become a feature of all of them even as they realize that none must rock the boat lest the buoyancy is affected. The taskmaster will have to walk the fine line between fundamentalism and modernism.